In praise of anchovies

My recent blogs have been on weighty historical and politico-economic themes. Imminent blogs will offer more of the same, since the past few weeks have been consumed with reading weighty historical and politico-economic tomes. I will want to share my thoughts on all that before I forget what they are. All the more need, therefore, for a little light relief this week. So I will write in praise of the humble anchovy.  

My first encounter with anchovies was through the familiar (to the English) Patum Peperium, or Gentleman’s Relish. An exquisite anchovy paste, made for hot buttered toast, in a different stratosphere to rather disgusting savoury alternatives. (I name no names, but you either love it or hate it, and I hate it.)

For years, in fact for decades, I consumed very few anchovies. Rather strangely, I seldom bought Patum Peperium either. Nor did many other people I knew. It’s one of those extraordinary products that many people love, but few people buy. Except when the occasional recipe called for them, I never bought anchovies. But now all that has changed. I can’t stop eating the things.

I need to be more specific. Anchovies come in two main forms: the salted anchovies in olive oil in little jars, and the fresh anchovies preserved in vinegar that you see on the delicatessen counter. I can do without the latter, to be honest. I have tried to like them, but all I can taste is the vinegar. However, the little salted beauties are a different kettle of fish altogether.

I love them in their natural state. Out here in the French sun, a few draped over hard-boiled eggs or slices of mozarella transform a plate of Oeufs Mayonnaise or Insalata Tricolore. But the great discovery – and the only justification for this piece – is how sensational anchovies are in any number of recipes, especially sauces.

Take mayonnaise. However delicious, mayonnaise is frequently bland – the shop-bought ones in particular. Now, when I make mayonnaise, not only do I add a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, as the French do, but two or three anchovies as well. They transform the taste. (By the way, and contrary to what I’ve always been told, it’s perfectly easy to make mayonnaise with a blender, as long as you don’t rush it.) Maybe, back in England, I will try the mustard/anchovy trick with a jar of Hellmann’s. It can’t make it any worse.

Another delicious sauce is a simple blend of anchovies, mustard and cream (or, if you insist, low-fat crème fraîche). This goes particularly well with pork – in fact so well that I haven’t yet tried it on any other meat. However, I should think it would be equally good with beef or duck, and maybe even lamb or chicken. It occurs to me now that I might try adding garlic to the mixture.

In fact, anchovies enhance an entire range of dishes. My next experiment will be with cheese sauce. It remains a source of wonderment how a standard cheese sauce, even if made with large quantities of mature cheddar, can still be so tasteless. Like many people, I always add some mustard, which certainly improves it, but I think that anchovies might take it to a new level.

The psychological hurdle is that none of this sounds natural. Fish is something you eat on its own, not use as an ingredient, let alone with a meat dish. The point is that, in this context, anchovies are only fish in a technical sense. Even in their semi-natural (salted) state, they don’t taste particularly like fish. They have a tangy flavour – like mustard or capers or chili sauce, but nicer than any of those. They’re one of the ingredients of Worcestershire Sauce, and the main ingredient of Thai and Vietnamese fish sauce.

They are very small, of course. And I still marvel at the fact that some people might have spent their working lives filleting them. Maybe they still do, or maybe machines have now replaced them, which would be no less a marvel.

For centuries, the centre of the French anchovy trade has been at Collioure, on the Mediterranean coast between Perpignan and the Spanish border. It’s a beautiful old fishing port, now entirely overrun by tourism. A hundred years ago, Collioure was an artists’ colony, home particularly to Fauvists such as Dérain. Anchovies and Fauvism – what a distinguished legacy to the world.

I feel a trip to Collioure coming on. And perhaps a visit to a factory that processes anchovies. I really do want to know how they fillet the little delicacies. And to enquire about a paid consultancy with the Anchovy Marketing Board.